Flashlights need to do two simple things: Turn on, and be bright.
So when a flashlight lets us down -- well, let's just say it's frustrating. Especially when we desperately grab it during an emergency (blackout, flat tire at night, etc.) ... and realize it has sucked all of its batteries dry, just dozing on the shelf since the last blackout.
If you haven't bought a new flashlight lately (or you've been relying on 99-cent bargain-bin cheapies), you might be surprised to learn that modern technology has actually built a better flashlight. You just have to know which one to pick. Here are some pointers:
The very best flashlights are tough, bright, reliable and reasonably priced. We dug through expert tests and owner reviews to find out which flashlights make the cut.
When in doubt, buy a MagLite. That's the consensus of owners at every single retail website we checked. Thousands of state troopers, paramedics, and just everyday people have written reviews of MagLite flashlights -- and very few of them can find any flaws.
You can buy MagLites in any size, from tiny keychain lights to arm-length-long monsters that swallow six D batteries. But for most reviewers, the MagLite LED 3-Cell D ST3D016 (Est. $30) hits the sweet spot. This flashlight can cast its beam over a quarter-mile, and it can run 80 hours on one set of three D batteries.
MagLite says it can withstand a 1-meter drop and five minutes of rain or splashing -- but reviews say that's understating its ruggedness. "MagLite set the standard for tough flashlights," Popular Mechanics' Steve Rousseau says, and it aces his flashlight-abuse test. He uses it to pound 12 iron tent stakes into the ground (its rugged anodized-aluminum body gets some shallow dents); runs over it with a 1973 MGB (minor scrapes); submerges it for 7 hours (it works perfectly afterward); and drops it 25 feet onto concrete ("big dent in the barrel but still shining").
Users are no less gentle. MagLites have been dropped in toilets, campfires, down cliffs and more, and all still worked perfectly, their owners report at Amazon.com.
The MagLite LED 3-Cell blasts 168 lumens. Twist the head, and the beam narrows from floodlight to long-range spotlight. Plenty of LED flashlights boast more lumens, but reviews say they tend to start dimming immediately, gobble a set of batteries every couple of hours or just can't out-tough the MagLite. MagLite backs all of its flashlights with a lifetime warranty against defects in parts and workmanship for the life of the original owner. MagLites are made in the U.S.A., too, which reviewers appreciate.
Every size MagLite earns equally stellar ratings. For those that want something smaller, the Mini MagLite Pro (Est. $22) actually shines brighter than the MagLite LED 3-Cell (272 lumens), amazing owners at every retail website we checked. It's built just as tough, too, owners report, with the same twist-to-focus LED beam. At 6.5 inches long and 4 ounces, it's easy to slip into a pocket or bag.
The tradeoff? The Mini Pro can't shine quite as far as the bigger MagLite (although still 163 meters -- more than a football field and a half), and it'll drain a set of two AA batteries in two and a half hours. For just a dollar or two more, the MagLite Mini Pro+ (Est. $24) adds a Low setting that can sip on one set of batteries for 27 hours -- good for situations where you don't particularly need or want a blindingly bright light.
Tactical flashlights were originally developed for the military and police, but more and more civilians are buying them. Tactical flashlights are palm-sized, rugged and dazzlingly bright -- enough to temporarily blind an enemy -- with a thumb-operated switch on the tail end. When you grip a tactical flashlight in your fist, the head and tail (which often have toothed edges) will stick out past your hand, so it makes an effective striking weapon.
You could spend hundreds of dollars on a tactical flashlight, but reviews say that's not necessary. The reasonably priced Streamlight 88031 Protac Tactical Flashlight 2L (Est. $45) earns the most consistent praise.
Firearms and tactical trainer Mike Seeklander recommends it at ArtOfManliness.com. "If you're looking for a more affordable tactical flashlight," the Protac 2L is described by Seeklander as "more than enough to blind an attacker so you can escape and evade." It's a customer favorite at Cabelas.com and Amazon.com.
The Streamlight 2L is less than 5 inches long and weighs less than 3 ounces, so it's easy to pocket. It shoots out a powerful 260-lumen LED beam, which lasts for three hours on a set of two small batteries (CR123A lithiums, included). You can switch to strobe (to disorient attackers) for 6 hours, or low (when you just want to use it as a flashlight, without blinding anybody) for 50 hours.
The Streamlight's anodized aluminum body can survive being submerged in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes and a 2-meter fall. It has an impact-resistant tempered glass lens, and its head and tailpiece have crenellated edges. Streamlight backs it with a lifetime warranty against defects (batteries and bulbs, abuse and normal wear excluded).
A really good rechargeable flashlight costs more up-front than a battery-powered one -- but there's a reason why some police departments issue the MagLite MagCharger LED RL1019 (Est. $85) as standard equipment. It's every bit as potent as its battery-powered brother, the Best Reviewed MagLite LED 3-Cell D ST3D016. Same rugged, anodized-aluminum body that can survive water and abuse. Same reassuring heft (about a foot long and nearly 2 pounds). Same mega-bright beam that can pierce a quarter-mile of darkness, and that can adjust to a floodlight with a twist of the wrist. Same lifetime warranty.
But the MagCharger has some big advantages, reviewers say. Since you can keep it in its charging cradle, it'll always be fully powered and ready when you grab it (bonus: You'll always know where it is, too). You'll never have to buy batteries. And the MagCharger has three special modes -- Outdoor, Law Enforcement and Military -- that let you instantly fire up strobe or momentary beams with the click of a button.
Of course, the MagCharger can't run for days on a single charge, the way regular full-size MagLites can run for days on a set of D batteries. Still, the MagCharger will shine its brightest for 4 hours on a charge, plus, it'll run 17 hours on low (which is still quite bright, at 148 lumens) and 37 hours on eco (66 lumens).That's plenty for most uses, though you'll also want to keep a battery-powered flashlight around for emergencies, such as an extended power outage
Owners -- firefighters, farmers, tow truck drivers -- report that they've relied on the MagCharger for years and it never fails them. The MagCharger is particularly easy to use, thanks to its powered cradle. The cradle plugs into the wall or car charger, so you never have to fiddle with the plug again -- just slip the entire flashlight in and out of the cradle. A cheaper rechargeable MagLite, the MagLite ML125 (Est. $60) gets good feedback, too, but reviews say it's less convenient because you have to take the battery out and charge it separately.
MagLite offers the MagCharger LED RL1019 with various power adapters. For example, Amazon.com sells it for $70 packaged with a 12-volt car charger, or $85 with both car charger and regular 120-volt wall plug. A 230-volt converter and 12-volt straight wire are also available.
If these MagLite rechargeable flashlights are too tall an order for your budget, for less than $10, the diminutive Energizer Weather Ready Compact Rechargeable LED Light (Est. $9) is worth considering. It can't match the majestic MagCharger -- but owners say it's just about the handiest little flashlight around.
Cheap flashlights are usually dim, flimsy battery hogs. But the Energizer shines long and bright, survives being dropped and just generally seems to last forever, owners say. Convenience-wise, Energizer has thought of everything: The little flashlight has a flip-out plug that sticks directly into an ordinary wall socket (without blocking the other socket), so it'll always be charged up, and you'll always know where to find it. If the power goes out, the Energizer lights up automatically. It'll run for 3.5 hours on High, or longer on Low.
The Energizer won't light up your entire backyard, like the MagCharger will, but it's certainly bright enough for ordinary household use. In fact, some owners say that although they own more powerful flashlights, the handy little Energizer is the one they grab most often.
To find the toughest flashlight, Popular Mechanics thoroughly abuses four popular flashlights (a MagLite, a cheap Rayovac and two flashy $300 models) and unmasks one as a surprising wimp. A professional firearms and tactical trainer names his preferred tactical flashlights at ArtOfManliness.com. But otherwise, "expert" flashlight reviews are few and far between -- except for the police officers, firefighters, and others for whom a good flashlight is literally a lifesaver (plus thousands of everyday owners) who post candid reviews at retail websites including Amazon.com, HomeDepot.com, Lowes.com, Cabelas.com and BHPhotoVideo.com.